Rhetorical Miscellany #1: Let’s declare a war on “Let’s declare a war on …”

The ability to make ideas convincing, not on their merits but through their manner of presentation, is both magical and infuriating.

I find it magical because this skill (which was called rhetoric in the classical and medieval world, and is now called, alternately, advertising, public relations, and “communications”) can lodge the most preposterous beliefs in our heads, or lead us to spend money on things for reasons we do not fully understand.

It is magical to me when I consider how Apple in the 1980s and ’90s convinced people they were iconoclasts because they bought a certain brand of mass-produced machine. It is infuriating to me when I see people buying the idea, peddled by gun industry lobbyists, that those of us who don’t own guns are to blame for mass shootings.

When you slow down such arguments, and remove the undercurrent of self-importance or fear that usher them into the mind, their unreason is quickly revealed. A mass-produced object does not make me unique. A plague of weapons does not make us safer. But rhetoric, operating at full power, can make such arguments feel like the truth. This has consequences at the cash register and the ballot box, where we shape our future.

Rhetoric was conceived in the hothouse of ancient greek public oratory, where it was an essential skill for the political class. But in our own time, where the speed and emotional charge of debate are amplified by instantaneous electronic media, and generations of mass audience advertising have influenced how we think, rhetoric has become ubiquitous and taken on godlike powers.

Partly because I like collecting shiny things, and partly in an effort to defend my own sanity and intellectual integrity, I collect rhetorical tactics. I dissect them and try to figure out where their power comes from. Up until now, my collection has lived in notebooks and in my thoughts. I thought I’d share some of my collection here.

First up: “War On …”

The phrase “declare war on” is a sure sign that rhetoric is being deployed. Framing any public issue as a war splits it into a binary conflict with the aim of recruiting you to one of the two sides.

Fox News, for example, has invoked the “war on Christmas” for several years running. Whenever Christmas decorations in schools or on public property are objected to, Fox calls us to arms to defend Christmas from its supposed enemies.

The debate about the role of religion in American public life is complicated, but in the war on Christmas, there are only two sides: warm-hearted defenders of Christmas, and the army of Scrooges who hate it.

Philosophy and law take time to understand. War is intuitively understood by everybody. An education in philosophy and law produces people who are hard to persuade. Those who enlist in a war, no matter how frivolous, are soldiers whose job is to fight, not think. And this is the danger of declaring notional wars when we discuss public issues. The virtues of the fighter, obedience and loyalty, replace the virtues of the voter, reflection and discernment.

Fundamentally, rhetoric is words at war. Rhetoric is argument for the sake of victory, which is not always the same as truth.

You can inspire, flatter, shame, or frighten a soldier onto the battlefield. But make no mistake that the battlefield is the one and only place a soldier belongs. When we rush to enlist in the phantom war against Christmas, we are turning to Fox News to enlarge our sense of self-regard, and, in turn, provide eyeballs for their advertisers. As soldiers, we are automatically important and have a purpose. It’s more satisfying to be a soldier in the war on Christmas than it is to be a regular citizen struggling to understand complex issues.

After 9/11, America was engaged in a “war on terror,” in which George W. Bush asked us to join him in battling an emotional state. The abstractness of such a notion is almost charming until you consider the very concrete wartime powers the Bush White House arrogated to itself, powers which the Obama White House has kept, even as they discarded the Bush-era slogans. Terrorists are a concrete threat and combatting them is a serious public duty. But spreading panic and the blind obedience it begets have not helped anybody carry out that duty. Panic did, however, make it easier to seize new powers under dubious legal justifications. Creating cover for just such a move is exactly what rhetoric was invented to do.